Her Twentieth Century

Modernism meets abstraction in the works of Toni La Selle

A quick glance at Dorothy Antoinette La Selle's "Santa Cruz Summer" can mistakenly lead you to read something into her work that's not there. This dense arrangement is formed by geometric shapes that divide up her masonite canvas and are painted in primary and secondary colors. It's the sort of organized confusion that's in tune with the scrambled visions of life found in wry contemporary art. To get under its surface, you find yourself asking, What is it about Santa Cruz, a laid-back Northern California mecca, that would provoke this? You begin to suspect there's a clever context going on in this cool collusion of color and form, where shapes and hues battle with a smirk and end in a wink: Santa Cruz may look like an ordered sea of circles and squares, because it's a fashionable city filled with fashionably alternative types at a time when the alternative is as regimented as the mainstream. What once was hot is not again.

But "Santa Cruz Summer"--only one of the 28 works in the Denton artist's solo show Selected Works From 1946 to 1991 at the Barry Whistler Gallery--was painted in 1967, before cunning stunts were de rigueur in American painting. Reading her work in the current fashion of self-conscious cleverness is bound to mislead, because what La Selle paints is her response to objects as they appear in nature, her interpretation of an environment. "Santa Cruz's" rectangular canvas is carefully divvied up into squares that are then subdivided into other shapes--circles carved within squares, squares enclosed within triangles, half-arcs sliced from triangles to form a circle where the two faces meet--that exude a calmness and clarity having more in common with traditional landscape painting than visual puns. And it's this sense of real space that firmly plants La Selle's roots in a time period far removed from today's postmodern pranksters.

Today, the 99-year-old La Selle may consider herself a "creaky old lady," but her mind is still sharp and her speech eloquent, especially when it comes to talking about her work. Born in Nebraska in 1901, La Selle has studied and lived in many, many parts of America and Western Europe, and her works exhibit the tension of coming to maturity in the 1920s and 1930s, a time between the two defining periods of contemporary art: late modernism and abstraction. (Since 1928, she has alternated time between Denton, where she was Professor of Art at Texas Woman's University from 1928-1972, and Provincetown, Massachusetts.) In fact, when she first started painting and was exhibited in Chicago in the 1920s, she was working in a figurative vein. As her understanding of the advances of modernism became more sophisticated, she ventured into nonobjective work.

"It's really very simple," La Selle says beguilingly of her move away from figurative work. La Selle unwinds sentences like Henry James, each new clause and thought a comment on and simultaneously a continuation of the last idea, rippling out like echos. As with her paintings, what may begin with the promise of simplicity expands into many other layers. "I didn't know about the real focus of the moderns until I was a senior [at Nebraska Wesleyan University], which for me meant being startled by the difference in literal representational work by what I encountered in Cézanne, Gaugin and van Gogh, who dawned on me through one really good teacher who had seen the [1913] Armory show in New York that long ago. From that time on, I began to realize that to do representational work really stood for a time and thinking that really wasn't in accord with the time in which I was living."

For La Selle, exploring a better personal vocabulary for her work meant finding a way to take what she learned from the artists she admired--from Cézanne she gained a greater appreciation for space; from Gaugin, color; and van Gogh, movement--and incorporate their lessons with what she considers the spirit of things, a mood, a tone or a feeling that visual objects provoke. In addition to her art schooling, she also studied psychology, and that discipline gave her a broader understanding of signs and meanings that enabled her to look at things with a more open eye and mind.

"I really have looked out on whatever source--either a landscape or an arrangement as a still life, or a model posing--I have looked out on all those to find the balances of density and substances," La Selle says. "But also beyond that, what is the spirit of it. Is it funny? Is it sad? Is it nasty? Is it grand? Is it dramatic? Or whatever mode or responses we find ourselves making to what happens. Out of that kind of thinking, you could take this vision of the activity and evaluate the color and their values and then balance their weights within a specific area to create the visible description that would become a painting."

This approach led La Selle to an interpretation of modernism coupled with an eye for abstraction. It's a vision that's best exemplified in its nascent stages in 1947's "Space Compositional Model." This small painting bears the marks of what would distinguish La Selle's work: a warm palette, the use of geometric shapes for both physical objects and empty space, and provocative compositions that catch the eye.

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